Minute for History #4

Good morning.
Today we have another in the series of documents from our church archives. This one is especially related to the observance of Martin Luther King’s birthday this weekend. It is from the minutes of a consistory meeting from 1803:

July 21, 1803
The Consistory met at the House of Jacobus Van Nuys & was opened with Prayer.
   Whereas it appears that Hagar, female slave of James Caldar, at present a member of this Church in full Communion, habitually abstains from the public worship of God, lives in cohabitation with her deceased husband’s brother and in other respects acts in a manner highly unbecoming her Christian profession. Therefore, resolved, that the said Hagar be suspended from the Privileges of this Church, until she manifests repent- ance for her past conduct & discover by a holy Life that she is inclined to follow the Lord fully __
   Certificates in proof of the regular membership of Jacobus Van Nuys & his wife Mary Hoagland in the Church of Harlingen & also a certificate for Nell a black woman from New Brunswick signed by Rev. I. Condict were read & appro- ved _ Whereupon the above three Persons were rec’d into the full Communion of this Church_ Jas. S. Cannon
   Since the above named Persons were published as regularly received members, the Consistory on the 22nd next examined Sarah Praal wife of Daniel Hoagland & being satisfied with the Proof she gave of her soundness in the faith & of her attachment to the Redeemer admitted her into the full Communion of this Church

                                              James S. Cannon

This is one of the most dramatic documents we have read since we began the Archives project. Even though the writing on this piece of paper, and the events it recounts, took place more than 200 years ago, our church was already nearly forty years old. The congregation was growing and new members were joining. The Consistory had the job of examining people prior to their being accepted for membership, and of enacting discipline for members. You could say their job was watching the boundaries -- who was in and who was out.

On the summer evening of July 21, 1803, the Consistory met at the house of one of the soon-to-be new members, Jacobus Van Nuys. The first matter they took up concerned a woman named Hagar. Her name is hardly an accident. Hagar, you recall from the Old Testament, was the handmaiden, or slave, of Abraham’s wife Sarah, and was the mother of Ishmael, the first son of Abraham. Our Millstone Hagar was a slave as well, a widow, and also a member in full communion of the church. It was said at the meeting that she was known to be living with her late husband’s brother, to whom she was not married. The Consistory, finding this behavior “highly unbecoming” to her professed Christianity decided to “suspend her from the privileges of the church”, until she repented. In fact, it is written that she had already put herself outside the boundaries of the congregation, by abstaining, herself, from “the public worship of God”.

The second matter the Consistory considered on that summer night was the acceptance of new members. Besides Jacobus Van Nuys and his wife Mary Hoagland, who were transferring their membership from the Harlingen Church, they also accepted a woman named Nell, who was from New Brunswick, and who was black. We can’t know for sure, but since Hagar is clearly identified as a slave in the first paragraph, and Nell is identified as black, but not as a slave, we might assume that Nell was a free black woman. All three had documentation of their membership in other churches, and all three were received into the full Communion of the church, with no distinctions.

When we think about slavery, we usually think about cotton plantations in the South. Certainly there were many more slaves south of the Mason-Dixon line, but there were slaves in the Northern states as well. The Encyclopedia of New Jersey tells us that the Dutch colonists first introduced African slaves into New Jersey in significant numbers beginning as early as 1640. In the later part of the 17th century, the English imported even more slaves. By 1790, New Jersey was the northern colony with the second-highest number of slaves, only New York had more. Roughly 8 percent of the population of the state was made up of slaves. New Jersey’s slave population peaked in 1800, just about the time our document was written. Interestingly, south Jersey was settled primarily by Quakers, who did not have slaves, so almost all slaves lived in the central and northern parts of the state.

In 1786, a law was passed that no more slaves could be imported into New Jersey. But by 1860, there were still a small number of elderly persons who were slaves; that made New Jersey the very last northern state to have any slaves. You may have heard that on January 8 of this year, 2008, the New Jersey State Legislature passed Resolution No.270, which expresses New Jersey’s profound regret for its role in slavery and apologizes for wrongs inflicted by slavery and its after-effects in the United States.

This history tells us several things. One is that our community of Millstone was not unusual; there were many slaves in our part of New Jersey, living and working on the small farms that made up Somerset County. This was the way of life of our ancestors, some of whose names can be read on the stones outside the windows. I can’t speak for other communities in New Jersey or other states, but in Millstone, at least, slaves were members of the same church as their owners, this church. What I find fascinating about the document is that there were both slave and free blacks in our area, and both were welcome in the Reformed Church in Millstone as full members. They evidently enjoyed the same privileges of membership as their owners, privileges that could be taken away, but presumably also returned. This document speaks of discipline and the drawing of lines around membership in the congregation.

And what is most interesting of all is the connection between long ago and today and the unchanging power of repentance. Last week the state of New Jersey issued a formal apology and statement of regret for the practice of slavery. Hagar, the woman who was living with her brother-in-law, was being called on to repent, and to live a holy life, in order to be joined again with the congregation. Repentance, whether it is for personal acts or for the practices of a whole society, is the way to put things right. It might be an inconvenient truth that this congregation had members who were slaves, maybe even moreso that members were slaveholders, but it is a fact that slavery was a part of our history. It is important for us to recognize this, as much as it should be a point of pride for us to realize that our congregation welcomed both slave and free blacks into its fold, as members equal to all others.